James Oliver was the youngest of the nine children of Scottish sheep farmers George and Elizabeth (Irving) Oliver. Times were hard in early 19th century Scotland, owing partly to an outbreak of cholera that killed most of the family’s sheep. The frugal Oliver family managed to hang on despite desperate conditions, but George and Mary’s oldest son, John, left for America in 1830. The next two oldest siblings, Andrew and Jane, also found opportunities limited and left for America. Meanwhile, James, then 7 years old, was learning to read and write in a local Presbyterian church.
John Oliver found work in Geneva, New York. Andrew and Jane joined him there and soon all were mailing home glowing accounts of a land where forests were actually in the way and people ate meat three times a week, at a time when the family in Scotland was barely eking out an existence. George Oliver was not the adventuresome type and resisted the idea of emigrating, but Mary took charge and announced that the family was going to New York. The year was 1834; Jamie, as he was called, was 11.
The family landed in Castle Garden, New York, after crossing the Atlantic in a sailing vessel. James later recounted that, as a bewildered lad on the dock, he was given an orange by one man and a kick by another, and he never forgot either.
The family then traveled to Albany by steamboat, to Schenectady by rail, and to Geneva by canal boat on the Erie Canal. Jamie went to work for a farmer who paid him 50 cents per week plus room and board. It was not much, even for an 11-year-old boy, but possibly the farmer had seen him eat. For the first time in his life, Jamie had adequate sustenance! The farmer said he would have paid him more if he spoke English.
At age 14, supporting his mother
In 1836, one of James Oliver’s sisters married a settler who homesteaded in the village of Mishawaka, Indiana. The rest of the Oliver family followed and settled on the homestead. Swamp bogs bordering the river were rich in bog iron, a rock-like geologic deposit containing small amounts of crude iron. Water power from the river rapids powered machinery and a blast furnace to smelt the bog iron, which was then transported by river barge to Lake Michigan, where it was transferred to ships that hauled it to industrial centers.
Oliver took a job working on a nearby farm, where he became acquainted with the rigors of field plowing. The experience left a lasting impression. As an adult, he was known to say, “A man who has never been jerked up astride his plow handles has never had his vocabulary tested.”
In 1836, Oliver went to work in nearby South Bend, Indiana, at a blast furnace company, where he learned how to cast iron. He also briefly attended the George Merrifield School, furthering his meager Scottish education. That, however, ended after only one year, following the death of his father in 1837.
Oliver then hired himself out to the owner of a pole-boat plying the river with iron for $6 per week. He took $5 home to his mother. He liked river work, but not the rowdy life of a river man. Many boat polers were paid in part with whiskey, and lived accordingly, so James took the opportunity to learn the cooper’s trade. The standard rate of pay for barrel making was $1 per day. Young James Oliver saw that his Scottish work ethic could pay off. He persuaded his employer to pay him on a piecework basis and was soon making $2 per day.
A match for life
Always on the lookout for additional income, Oliver dug a ditch and split shingles for an Englishman named Joseph Doty. As was the custom, he was given meals with the family while working there. It was then that he began using bear grease on his unruly red hair. Those who noticed concluded it was an effort to impress Doty’s daughter, Susan.
When not working, Oliver spent much time at the Doty house with Susan. With her help, he read all 50 books in the Doty library. Much to her father’s consternation, love had blossomed and Oliver asked for Susan’s hand. Doty said he would only give his blessing to the union if young Oliver could meet the seemingly impossible condition of owning a house.
Oliver soon met a family eager to leave Mishawaka for the frontier town of Ft. Dearborn (what is today Chicago). Reasoning that land in Indiana had no value, they agreed to sell him their two-room bungalow, with a pounded blue clay floor, for $20, and threw in the lot. Oliver’s offer of $18 cash was accepted, as was Oliver’s proposal to Susan. The couple married in 1844; James Oliver was 20 years old. Susan borrowed a loom and made a rag carpet for their new home.
Over the next 10 years, Oliver worked at coopering, iron molding and farming. By the time he was 32, he and Susan had a $1,000 house, a quarter section of land and two children, Joseph D. and Josephine. Farming was his principle occupation.
Launch of a business career
In 1855, a momentous event occurred in Oliver’s life. While on a business trip, he met a man who wanted to sell a quarter interest in his South Bend foundry at inventory value of $88.96 (about $2,600 today). Oliver, who happened to have $100 in his pocket at the time, took the deal, and again found himself in the cast iron business, but this time in management. One of the foundry’s products was a cast iron plow. Oliver knew plows, and knew that he had never used a good one.
Field plowing, before today’s no-till or low-till practices, was one of the main tasks in farming. The purpose was to invert the sod, cover field trash and pulverize the soil. Plowing gives the tilled soil good contact with the subsoil to facilitate the rise of moisture. Plowing also covers and mixes manure used as fertilizer.
Crude wooden plows had been used since the Garden of Eden. Iron plows appeared about 1000 B.C., but it wasn’t until 1797 that American Charles Newbold obtained a patent for a cast iron plow. By the 1820s, cast iron plows were the norm, but cast iron by nature is rough and full of surface imperfections known as blowholes. It is also prone to rusting, further pitting the surface.
The cast iron plow worked well enough in the light, sandy soils of the east, but farther west, the soil got heavier until, in the Great Plains, soil known as gumbo was prevalent. Standard equipment with cast iron plows sold in the West included a leather pouch holding a paddle scraper. Often, a plowman could only go a few yards before he would have to roll the plow on its side and scrape mud from the moldboard.
An invention’s year in development
John Deere made his famous self-scouring steel plow from a broken band saw blade in 1837. It was relatively small, with only about a 12-inch cut, but it scoured in the gumbo soil of northern Illinois. Before the development of the Bessemer steelmaking process of 1864, steel was available, but at a cost of 25 cents per pound, it was used only in applications where the additional strength justified the cost.
For 12 years Oliver worked on developing a stronger, more durable cast iron plow. A Bible verse from Isaiah (“… and they shall beat their swords into plowshares …”) stuck in his mind, prompting an investigation of sword making. The famed Toledo sword produced in Spain had a shiny molded blade with a keen edge, lightness, and extreme strength. Oliver learned that the swordmaker quenched white-hot blades with water, but when he tried a similar process on a plow, the bulky castings warped and cracked.
Over several years of experimentation, Oliver found that the rate of cooling could be regulated if boiling hot water were circulated through chilling passages as the molten iron was poured into the sand mold. Grooving and ribbing the casting and mold also helped, and allowed the surface to be hardened while the core cooled more slowly, thus creating a smooth-wearing surface with a more resilient internal structure that increased the plow’s strength and durability.
Innovation in plow design
At the same time, Oliver was having success experimenting with basic plow design. He concentrated first on center-of-draft (or line-of-draft). Proper application of this principle made the plow easier for the team to pull and easier for the operator to handle. He also developed a moldboard with a rolling shape, an innovation that remains in use today.
Tests proved that the Oliver chilled plow had a draft load of about half that of the traditional cast iron plow. Soon, Oliver was selling seven times as many plows as his nearest competitor. In later years, Oliver’s catalog offered 1,000 plow configurations covering every conceivable special need. The catalog included both chilled cast iron plows and steel plows.
By 1881, the family-owned Oliver Chilled Plow Works
in South Bend had a workforce of 900 producing 600 plows a day. But even having attained significant success as a manufacturer, Oliver still considered himself to be a farmer first. “I am a partner with the farmer,” he said, “and the farmer is a partner with nature.” He was often heard to say that he looked forward to the time he could turn the company over to his son, Joseph, and go back to farming full time.